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Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation

by: Michele McLellan |



           Executive Summary
           1. Strategy
           2. Research
           3. Staff ownership
           4. Process and planning
           5. Leadership and culture
           6. Organization-wide buy-in
           7. Training and tools
           8. Organizational change
           9. Priorities
           10. Feedback loops


<<Previous: 4. Process

5. Leadership and culture

Summary: Corporate and newsroom leaders kept up a steady flow of clear, consistent communication about the initiative. In newsrooms with healthy cultures and collaborative leaders, the process was quick to take hold. The process also revealed newsrooms with cultures of control and mistrust.

Clear, consistent communication from corporate and newsroom leaders played a central role in the Four Platform initiative because staff understanding and buy-in were so essential.

Stewart kept up a steady flow of communication and activity related to Four Platform over the life of the initiative. He paid careful attention to keep the framing simple and repeated key phrases often.

Underscoring the importance of the research and the initiative, Stewart launched the Four Platform initiative and representatives of Magid presented the research in person at staff meetings in each of the larger markets. Stewart and Hoag staged webinars for the staff in each of the smaller markets.

In the middle of 2013, Stewart began staging an all-hands-invited webinar every two weeks to raise digital literacy, re-enforce the Four Platform message and encourage newsrooms to share their successes and lessons. Those sessions continue every three weeks today.

“The more we had people from the front lines sharing what they were doing and learning, the more it reinforced that sense of ownership,” Stewart said.

He personally organized the sessions and received feedback from editors that this level of involvement underscored the importance of the Four Platform initiative in their newsrooms.

Back in their newsrooms, the editors were responsible for keeping communication about the Four Platform initiative front and center.

One task for the editors was to make sure the franchise committees were keeping their colleagues informed and engaged as they worked through the process.

Many of the committees regularly briefed colleagues in the newsroom and sought their feedback. The Kitsap Sun/Kitsap.com in Washington State took it a step further, incorporating opportunities for the staff to vote on different options at a series of briefings as the franchise work progressed.

Another task for the editors was to elevate newsroom discussion of digital and the Four Platform strategy on a daily basis using conversation, email updates, staff meetings and visual cues in the newsroom.

Visual cues were an important signal to the staff that digital was a priority. If the main display in the newsroom consisted of tear sheets of the morning print newspaper, it signaled business as usual.

Instead the newsrooms displayed key web metrics on display screens and developed other materials related to the Four Platform initiative and digital journalism.

Corpus Christi, meanwhile, hung banners promoting each of its franchise topics in the newsroom to underscore their importance. Knoxville, Ventura, Wichita Falls and other newsrooms posted the persona descriptions their respective committees developed and highlighted them frequently in making coverage decisions.

Stewart sought to engage and support the top editors in a variety of ways.

He convened four meetings of top editors and their deputies between August 2012 and September 2014, and he convened a virtual meeting of editors in January 2015. In between, he hosted a call with top editors every couple of weeks.

The meetings gave editors a chance to get away from their newsrooms and work together on plans with support from their peers. “We included structured opportunities for people to build relationships. In the absence of relationships, people feel like they have to do it all by themselves,” Stewart said.

As the initiative began, each editor also got to preview the initial KDMC site visit in another newsroom, getting a chance to ask questions, understand the process, and prepare his or her newsroom.
“Having me attend the Knoxville launch in advance of the Treasure Coast launch was incredibly valuable in getting me to understand and buy in and in enabling me to come back and prepare my senior newsroom leaders in what was going to happen and to show them that I was enthused and supportive and a believer,” said Mark Tomasik, editor of Treasure Coast Newspapers/TCPalm.com.

Prior to the start of work, KDMC also did a survey in each newsroom to assess its culture and the effectiveness of its leadership communications. KDMC used the results to coach editors about communications gaps and the importance of their communications in the success of the initiative. KDMC also performed periodic assessments to identify emerging practices and assess progress (or lack of it), in each newsroom.

Nearly all of the top editors and committees embraced the process. In a handful of newsrooms, however, the process uncovered cultures of control and mistrust that had to be rebuilt under new leadership before significant franchise work could go forward.

“In newsrooms with a healthy culture, the process unleashed leadership at multiple levels,” Stewart said. However, “this process did not work in a broken newsroom culture. It revealed newsrooms that didn’t have a healthy culture. That was one of the most valuable parts of the process.”

Continue: 6. Organization-wide buy-in>>

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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